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How to Write a Cookbook That Gets People Talking

Prolific cookbook writer Julia Turshen and first-time author Nik Sharma discuss diversity in cookbook publishing, and finding the freedom to speak their truth

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Turshen photo by David Loftus; Sharma photo courtesy the author

“So, I should warn you, you might hear my dogs bark in the background,” Julia Turshen says. The morning I connected with Turshen, a prolific cookbook author whose latest is called Now & Again, and Nik Sharma, first time author of the new cookbook, Season, we’re all dialing in from home.

Sharma laughs. “Same,” he says, and we all chuckle-groan at the same time. If you follow the two authors on Instagram — and you should: @abrowntable and @turshen — you’ll know that both love their pets, and that Sharma recently adopted a kitten. Home gardeners, cooks, and bakers, Sharma and Turshen are both naturally suited to writing about cooking — but for vastly different reasons.

Turshen grew up in cookbooks, quite literally. “They’re how I learned about cooking and the world and people,” she says of a childhood spent in her suburban kitchen. A world away, for Sharma, cookbooks were a window into the West from an upbringing in India he describes as “humble.” To this day, Sharma loves reading old American or English cookbooks for insight into Western politics and culture.

We chit chat about cats and dogs for a few minutes before diving into the topics of the day: Cookbooks, cookbook publishing, representation in cookbooks, and advice for those who might want to write a cookbook one day.

Both of your cookbooks are likely to attract a variety of readers, but I see them also as serving another purpose. Julia, as you wrote in your op-ed for Eater “To Change Racial Disparity in Food, Let’s Start With Cookbooks,” there’s a problem in cookbook publishing. Your words resonated with a lot of people in and out of the industry — what did you hear from readers after that piece came out?

Now & Again

JT: I definitely got a lot of feedback on social media about that. I remember one thing I heard specifically was from my literary agent, who said that someone who works at her agency was representing children’s books, and a children’s book author got in touch with her to say she read it, and said it felt really relevant to her work, too... What’s happening in this very tiny corner of the food world we all occupy is actually happening everywhere and across so many platforms. That was cool for me to hear, that [the topic of welcoming diversity in cookbook publishing] so easily translated to another avenue in publishing.

NS: I heard from a lot of people of color that acknowledged that we all talk about this privately, and we’re a little afraid to talk about it publicly, so we’re so glad someone — Julia — wrote about it and shared experiences from different authors. Because we want this conversation to continue.

JT: That topic is stuff Nik and I talk about a lot, privately, and as friends and colleagues. And that was also around when I launched Equity at the Table, and that started lots of other conversations, too.

This political climate seems ripe for these conversations.

Season

JT: I think in general, with everything going on in the world, speaking up and speaking truth to power and leveraging whatever platform you have, acknowledging whatever privilege you have and speaking up… the timing feels right. I don’t know that I would have been confident enough to speak up before, so I am grateful to those that spoke up before me.

NS: One of the things I’ve noticed also is that writers have a new level of confidence. They’re not afraid to just say, “This is how I feel right now. This is what I’m writing about, so let me share my story.”

JT: I didn’t really think about this when I was writing it, but reflecting on it now, I guess I was... I don’t know if criticism is the right word, but at least shining some light on some issues in the industry. My income depends on it — the industry I work in and that is so competitive, and so oversaturated — I think there is something a little... scary, in doing that. I definitely remember thinking, “How’s my editor gonna feel about this? Or my publisher?” But, happily, Nik and I have the same editor, Sarah Billingsley. And I’m proud to work with a publishing house that jumped on board with Feed the Resistance.

NS: It’s not possible for everyone to speak up so, yeah, I feel lucky. I think this also speaks volumes to our publisher, Chronicle, because we’re two gay cookbook authors with books coming out this season, the craziest season for cookbooks.

I want to back up a little because this gets into something else I wanted to talk about — breaking into the cookbook publishing world. You two have had such different journeys into it. Tell me about that.

JT: I worked for a really long time on other people’s books. I guess I should really back up and say I’ve been obsessed with cookbooks since I could pick up a book, like even before I could read. I had parents who worked in magazine and book publishing, so I was always surrounded by print media and I taught myself how to cook out of cookbooks. I don’t say this to sound cute or anything, it’s really been my lifetime obsession. I never had a blog and I’m not on TV, but cookbooks were my education — they’re really how I learned about cooking and the world and people. So I’ve always known I wanted to work on cookbooks in whatever capacity. Early on in my career I was a co-author and assistant and just did whatever needed to be done.

So that’s how you came to work on books with Gwyneth Paltrow.

JT: Yes, and this was an education too, in seeing how many books get published, the rise of celebrity cookbooks, of food blogs... at some point I really felt like the world doesn’t need another cookbook.

But eventually I realized, well, I have a voice. And I started to feel strongly that the only book I should ever work on is one that only I could write... What I love about the work I do is revealing the person behind the book. That comes through in the writing and photography, and in all these ways that aren’t just through the food. I think the food is the vehicle to all that.

I worked on something like 10 other cookbooks before I wrote my first solo cookbook, Small Victories. And I went into it knowing exactly how much work goes into making a cookbook. You know that now, too, Nik...

NS: Yes, but my story is very different. I didn’t grow up here [in the U.S.]. I grew up in a low-income — for India it would be middle class — environment. The only way for me to see the world was through encyclopedias, which were very visual. And even though she didn’t cook, my mom used to have a stack of cookbooks, and I would go through them over and over. It was fascinating to me because this was my only access to the world beyond television. I didn’t read them for the food, but the food drew me in.

You know how in America we always talk about spices when it comes to Indian food? In India at the time, it was, “Oh my gosh, what is bread flour? Why don’t we get that here?” And I remember trying to make bread with the flour we had, and it wouldn’t work. The West was exotic to me.

Even today, I tend to gravitate towards older cookbooks because the writing is so good, and it reveals a lot. These books are a way for me to learn about the history that I’ve missed. I know a little bit about race relationships in America from what I learned in school. But then living here, it’s such a different experience because I’m living it.

JT: Oh, interesting.

NS: I didn’t leave India for the longest time, ’til I got married and I got my green card. I started my blog because of those memories of reading my mom’s cookbooks. Then the column in the San Francisco Chronicle happened.

The thing is, writing is my weakest skill. I know I’m a good photographer, I can style things well and I can cook fairly decently. But when it comes to writing, I have to spend a lot more time on that. Writing a column in the local paper has really helped me build a relationship with the people out here, understanding what people like and don’t like. It took me a long time to feel comfortable enough to want to write a cookbook. It’s like Julia was saying, the market is saturated. And at the end of the day a consumer is always going to go to the trusted authority on a certain subject, right? It’s very difficult for someone to try out a new author. But the column helped me earn some trust.

Then, I didn’t necessarily want to write about Indian food. But perceptions of it, how Indians perceive it as well as how the West perceives it... I’m always complaining about how people are talking about my culture, [so] what can I do to change that? When I was comfortable enough, I discussed some rough ideas with my agent. I wanted to talk about how I cook as an immigrant. It’s not fusion, really, but I’m connecting everything I know. This is something I learned here, this is something I learned there. At the same time I also want to show the versatility and applicability of my culture in the West. Overall, it was a multi-year process. Like Julia, I met my agent, spent a lot of time thinking, cooking, and gathering ideas, and then came up with an idea and honed it with my agent and then wrote a pitch.

JT: So much of what Nik just talked about resonates so much for me: really taking your time and learning a lot, in so many different ways. When it comes to books, it’s staggering how many books there are, how frequently they happen, that I think there’s this feeling that cookbooks happen overnight.

Almost like they’re disposable, which is sad. But the best ones linger, the ones we keep on our shelves.

JT: Right, my hope for Nik’s book, Season, and the books I work on, is they’ll be around for a while. So I think it makes sense to spend some time — whether you’re coming up with the idea or working on it or just, you know, living your life — to build up your experiences, to live so you have a story to tell.

NS: And then you have something to really champion. Over the summer my editor let me go wild on the book and said, “Tell your stories. This is what you want to do, tell your story.” I’m not sure if everyone else has that experience, and Julia can speak for herself on this, but it was so refreshing and so nice as a first time author to have that support.

JT: Absolutely.

Julia, what was some advice you gave to Nik when he said he wanted to write a cookbook?

JT: One of the first things I think I told Nik was, don’t do it. [Laughs] And I think I told you to get a therapist?

NS: Yeah.

JT: I am a big advocate for therapy and I wish it were more accessible and affordable; that’s not just advice for Nik, that’s for everyone. Because making a book is really emotional, and putting it out there is extremely vulnerable. I mean, Nik, you and I have talked a lot about this, and I know you’re on the brink of it for the first time.

NS: It was such an emotional experience and even right now, I am mortified. I go to bed at night and I’m stressed out.

JT: I think you’re really set up for such success because you put in the work, but it’s still really scary. Especially cookbooks that are as personal as the ones both Nik and I write, we’re putting ourselves out there in a big way. Emotional strength and the relationships we have that have nothing to do with our work are so important.

NS: There’s still this thing inside my head... My parents haven’t read the book yet, but how are they going to react with certain things? [Sharma explains in his book’s introduction that a main reason he wanted to leave India was so he could live freely as a gay man.] At the same time, so there’s the written part of the book and the recipes, then there’s the photography… It’s hard, but I think a book that you tell from your heart is probably the strongest one that’ll connect with people.

What’s some other advice you both have for writers who might want to write a cookbook one day?

JT: After I decided to get an agent I needed to take myself seriously. As a freelance writer, it’s important to recognize yourself as a small business. And with agents, you want someone who gets you, believes in you, and will help you navigate this world — and of course will help sell you to different editors.

Then, I think what you were touching on earlier Nik, also working long enough and hard enough to create your own credibility because so much about cookbooks is about trust. Readers trust in you, what you were saying Nik, about them trusting you on a recipe. I always think about, if someone’s gonna follow my recipe, which means they’re gonna spend their money on ingredients, they’re gonna spend time cooking, those are two very valuable things.

NS: Just to echo Julia’s comment on finding an agent you connect with… One of the first agents I contacted really dashed my self-esteem. I was also young and immature, but when she wrote back she said, “I took a look at your work, but I don’t think your voice is going to translate right now.” That just crushed me. So my advice is: Don’t give up. Eventually I found my agent, and she has been my knight in shining armor where she supports me and wipes away doubts. Throughout the whole process, I felt taken care of, like I had someone who believed in me and that made me believe in myself more.

JT: The other thing I think about a lot is how much we need each other. Community is such a valuable form of currency.

NS: Support of the tribe, so to speak, is so valuable. Julia and I, I don’t think we’ve actually had a conversation about recipes since I’ve known her. We’ve talked about other, random things, right? But I have such a close relationship with Julia because I know that we don’t see each other as competition. This is a very competitive world, but like Julia said in her article, there is a lot of room for people who want to do the work, and who want to tell their stories.

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